In the centre of the base here in Lashkar Gah is the NAAFI, the Navy Army Air Force Institute. Established in 1920, the NAAFI provides basic recreational facilities to the military world-wide and, whilst not exactly Starbucks, is a good place to have a few quiet minutes with a coffee. In Afghanistan it serves as the main social hub of the base where a brew with your mates is a major highlight of the day.
A lot of the NAAFI staff are ex-servicemen so I was surprised recently when one didn’t answer back to a soldier he was serving who flew into a rage about civilians in a combat area, the war in general and how squaddies get a tough time while NAAFI staff remain nice and safe in base. The NAAFI chap kept calm and explained later that he’s used to the occasional blow-up from troops letting off steam, with most of them returning later in the day to apologise. He also said that quite a number seek him out for a chat, seeing him as a ‘normal’ bloke and enjoying a brief spell away from the military. Welfare provision to the forces takes many forms and the pressures out here on the fighting troops are sometimes overwhelming, so as one man may go to the chapel on base to rest his mind, others choose to chat to the NAAFI staff. Both work in mysterious ways.
This will be my last letter to you as we are approaching the end of the tour in Helmand. Home soon, but it is unwise to shift the focus just yet. The time has gone quickly, for us at least, the families back home will have a different view. The military works hard to support the families and has to tread a delicate line between those for whom there can never be enough information and those who want nothing to do with the army or to be reminded of the environment their loved ones are in. It’s tough for those we have left behind and having gone through it myself when my wife deployed I know how dislocated the world feels, with your mind permanently in two places at once. One becomes acutely aware of time – the hour, the half-hours – because that’s generally when news bulletins occur on radio and TV. It is impossible to stop listening out for “…a British soldier was killed today in Afghanistan…”. That’s why they always end the reports by stating that the next of kin have been told; it’s not news, it’s a message to the other families.
In many ways we were the lucky ones: training together, deploying together and supporting each other throughout. Out here you’re in a bubble, completely divorced from normal life in the UK and the self- centred laziness and petty annoyances one occasionally experiences. A soldier’s life on an operational tour is uncomplicated precisely because the stakes are so high – literally life and death – rather than in spite of them being so. There’s room only for the things that matter: family at home, the job and the blokes out here. You understand loss. Question: is it better to lose a mate in the first week of tour or the last? Think about that for a while and you’ll come close to understanding how a soldier feels about war. You are judged according to a different code with words like honour, pride and integrity and it is easy to understand why the profession of soldiering has endured throughout history. There is much about this place I will miss. Like the NAAFI manager talking quietly with a soldier, war brings out the worst in some but the best in many. Perhaps that’s why we do it.
In memoriam: Corporal David Barnsdale, Private Mikkel Jorgensen, Sapper William Blanchard, Ranger Aaron McCormick, Lance Corporal Jorgan Randrup, Guardsman Christopher Davies, Private John Howard, Corporal Steven Dunn, Warrant Officer Class 2 Charles Wood, Private Joseva Vatubua, Private Samuel Enig, Private Martin Bell, Ranger David Dalzell, Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, Private Conrad Lewis, Private Lewis Hendry, Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, Lance Corporal Stephen McKee, Private Daniel Prior, Major Matt Collins, Lance Sergeant Mark Burgan. This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in March 2011.